SACRAMENTO — In winning the CIF NorCal title on March 19, the Cardinal Newman girls did just about everything right. About the only weakness the Cardinals exhibited in that game was a tendency to struggle against Menlo School’s press.
But that flaw was magnified as the Division 4 state championship approached. Newman’s opponent Saturday was Antelope Valley, a team that thrives on full-court pressure defense. Basically, anything Menlo School could do, the Antelopes could do better.
Somehow, it never materialized as a major factor in the championship game at Sleep Train Arena. The Cardinals more than broke even against the Antelope Valley press and eventually emerged with a 39-37 victory, earning the Redwood Empire’s first basketball banner since 1997.
“We made adjustments,” Cardinal Newman coach Monica Mertle said afterward. “We put in some new press breaks, put in some new quick hits in the backcourt to get the ball in. We worked against pressure all week, and we also watched game film, which I think helped, to see ourselves.”
Mertle estimated that she and her staff watched 12 hours of video last week — video of the Cardinals, and video of the Antelopes. They pared it down to selected clips for the players.
It paid off. Newman committed 12 turnovers Saturday, far from disastrous. Junior forward Hailey Vice-Neat was a central cog; she’s a good ball handler, and at 6-foot-3 can hold the ball above defenders trying to swat it. And freshman point guard Avery Cargill frequently split the defense.
“And the thing is, she kept her dribble. And she’s been doing a really good job of that,” Mertle said of Cargill. “There is no 10-second backcourt (violation) in women’s basketball. Take care of the ball, and we’ll find an opportunity to attack.”
But really, it was a group effort that made the difference for the Cardinals.
“One thing we did a little differently is use all five players,” Mertle said. “In the past we would kind of isolate a couple of players and put them in positions. We knew that we were gonna get pressed, we knew that there was a potential for wear-down. So rather than put the responsibility on a couple of players, we tried to engage more players in the press break.”
It was crucial, because the Antelopes never stop coming. It isn’t just their team quickness, which is substantial. It’s their depth. Antelope Valley coach Deon Price used nine players in the first quarter alone; eight of his girls played 13 minutes or more against Cardinal Newman.
One other thing that helped the Cardinals: a dress rehearsal. Mertle took her team to Sacramento on Thursday. They watched other state championship games at the arena that day, getting a feel for the environment. Mertle pointed out the scoreboard, the NBA 3-point line (which is different than the high school arc), where the girls would be setting, how they’d be introduced.
“The first 10 minutes that we entered the stadium, it was silence. And if you’ve ever been around teenage girls, that’s very rare,” Mertle said. “They just kind of took it in and were preparing themselves, and it was very helpful to have that experience and not feel rushed into this big game.”